14 Sivan 5780

June 5, 2020

Last week, I explained why we have split up the Torah portion, Naso (Numbers 6:1-7:89) into two parts.  This week’s second part includes the famous Birkat HaKohanim – the Priestly Blessing – which is needed in today’s troubled times. It reads:

May God bless you and keep you.    May God shine God’s light on you and be gracious to you.   May God turn God’s face towards you and bring you peace. (6:24-26)

The part of this blessing that’s always challenged me is the idea that God can turn God’s face in one direction or another — as though God isn’t always everywhere, turned in every direction all at once. I believe God is completely transcendent and therefore inclusive of all of existence, so it’s counter-intuitive to me that God could be facing one direction and not another. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the image of God — tzelem Elohim — us – as people. We turn our attention in different directions all the time! Maybe this is a blessing about what we can do for each other and ourselves, at least in part. If we read it that way, as Rabbi Hannah Spiro suggests, here’s how the blessing could go:

May God bless us and keep us vigilant, looking out for ourselves and our people.     May God inspire us to light up, proudly highlighting our own unique beauty, and allow us to be gracious, even when folks make it hard.     May God inspire us to turn towards others — across neighborhoods, across parties, across religions — and really try to see, compassionately, what’s going on there, so we may bring peace to our country, our families, and our own psyches.

Written in this inclusive format, it is now a blessing that honors the need to speak out against hate speech targeting any people. It recognizes the need to protect and value all people, and to speak up for ourselves and others with pride for who we are and honesty about our pain and anger. That’s also a blessing that calls on us to turn towards one another with graciousness and figure out where the one who hurt us is coming from. If dialogue and partnership would help, this blessing is directing us to do that turning and show up where we don’t usually go.

Where cruel and baseless words make us want to turn away in fear or cry out in indignation, this ancient blessing makes me want to turn towards that discomfort in courage, speak out with clarity, and then listen. As we hear the cries from People of Color and how there is a disproportionate killing of Black lives, we want stability, but law and order is breaking down when those who are charged with enforcing the law are not abiding by it themselves. That is a recipe for lawlessness. And patriotism to me is about fulfilling the promise of America -liberty and justice for all – each one of us regardless of the color of our skin. We, who are fortunate, have an obligation, like the ancient priestly leaders, to be leaders and help our brothers and sisters of color, to ensure the blessing of all humanity. Even when it stings, may we be blessed with the power to make peace.